The fate of casino gambling in Massachusetts may hinge on a case that was argued before the justices of the state’s highest court in Boston this morning.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard an hour of oral arguments Monday morning on whether a question should be allowed on the November ballot asking voters if the 2011 law that opened the state to Las Vegas-style gambling should be repealed.
The Repeal the Casino Deal anti-casino group petitioned for the referendum, but Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office said the question violates the state constitution and should not be allowed on the ballot.
Thomas Bean, the attorney representing the anti-casino activists, urged the justices to overrule the Attorney General’s decision.
" There is a very strong policy disagreement here about what should happen and that is simply one more reason why this matter should go to the voters."
Coakley’s office argues the question could cause the casino developers to lose property without being compensated for it, which under law, referendums in Massachusetts are not permitted to do. Bean, questioned by Justice Robert Cordy, argued that voters have a right to revise laws that impact public morals and welfare.
" You can do this without compensation for all the investment that was made at the encouragement of the legislature specifically. They can do it without compensation?" Cordy asked Bean.
"That is correct," Bean replied.
" Wow," said Cordy.
Assistant Attorney General Peter Sacks said if the referendum reaches the ballot and passes the state would likely face lawsuits from casino companies.
" If this proposed law passes I don't see what would protect the Commonwealth from that kind of suit."
MGM, Wynn Resorts, Mohegan Sun, and other companies have spent millions of dollars to plan and develop projects in Massachusetts in the last three years. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission has awarded a license for a casino with slot machines, but no table games, and is scheduled to issue licenses for full-blown resort casinos over the next few months
Sacks argued the casino developers have an implied contractual right to see the license application process play out since the companies have spent millions in mandatory fees and other costs.
Questioned by Justice Cordy, Sacks said anti-casino activists might have gotten their initiative petition approved for the ballot if they had gone about attacking the casino law in a different way.
" The problem with this petition is it precludes the (gaming) commission from issuing decisions on license applications."
Chief Justice Roderick Ireland asked Bean, the attorney for the anti-casino activists, to respond to arguments from business groups about the impact of a sudden about-face on the casino issue.
" I think that is precisely one of the arguments the casino industry will make if this goes to the ballot as to why it should not pass," said Bean.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and other city residents filed briefs with the court arguing that a statewide referendum would illegally encroach on a decision by city voters last July to approve a casino development deal with MGM. The entertainment giant plans an $800 million casino in downtown Springfield
MGM, which is the only applicant for the lone casino license in western Massachusetts, is asking gaming industry regulators to delay the formal awarding of the license until the issue of the repeal referendum is resolved.
The SJC is expected to issue a decision by July.